The NCAA plans to expand the men's basketball tournament from 65 to 68 teams beginning next year and announced a new,
$10.8 billion broadcasting deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting on Thursday that will allow every game to be shown live for
the first time.
The three-team expansion is much more modest than 80-team and 96-team proposals the NCAA outlined just a few weeks ago at the Final Four. The move coincides with the new, 14-year broadcasting arrangement that interim NCAA president Jim Isch said will provide an average of $740 million to its conferences and schools each year.
The NCAA badly wanted every tourney game broadcast live.
"It was a goal from the very, very beginning and I believe it's what our memberships want and it's want our fans want across the country," Isch said. "I think without question, it was one of the driving factors in our position and why CBS and Turner make such great partners."
The men's tournament last expanded in 2001, adding one team to the 64-team field that was set in 1985. Talk of tweaking March Madness again generated a lot of chatter from fans worried the competition would be watered down and those who feared the additional bracket guesswork needed to predict a winner.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who favored expansion, said the proposal was "better than nothing."
"As a coach I'd like to see more people get in but 68 is a good step and the easiest way, to have the least amount of turmoil," Boeheim said. "There's really no way to do a little bit bigger expansion. You can't expand by eight, 10. There's no way to figure that out. This is the easiest way and hopefully down the road there will be a bigger expansion."
Fellow Big East coach Jim Calhoun of Connecticut was less enthusiastic. He pointed to this year's tournament, which included deep runs by Cornell, Northern Iowa, Xavier and national runner-up Butler.
"I have a tough time seeing why we have to change a concept that has been so good," Calhoun said. "This year, the parity was incredible. If you have something that has become magical and what has enhanced it is not more games, but the Butlers and the parity. Those things are what have done it. George Mason. It's been proven time and again."
Less than four weeks ago, turning the NCAA's signature event into a 96-team field seemed like all but a done deal.
During the Final Four, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen talked extensively about plans to go to 96, saying the three-week event would start two days later and eliminate the play-in game. But more games would have been added to Week 2, and that caused concerns about how much class time the athletes would miss.
Shaheen also cautioned then that nothing had been decided.
Any move hinged on the NCAA's $6 billion, 11-year television deal with CBS Sports, which has broadcast championship games since 1982. The deal, signed in 1999, had a mutual opt-out until July 31, and the NCAA took it amid speculation that ESPN might become a partner in one of the most popular and lucrative tournaments in sports.
"We made an aggressive bid and believe our combination of TV distribution, digital capabilities, season-long coverage and year-round marketing would have served the interests of the NCAA and college fans very well," ESPN said in a statement posted on its website.
The NCAA's agreement with CBS and Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc. runs from 2011 through 2024. It means that every game next March will be shown live — on CBS, TBS, TNT or truTV — for the first time in the tournament's 73-year history.
Next year, everything through the second round will be shown nationally on the four networks. CBS and Turner, an entity of Time Warner Inc., will split coverage of the regional semifinal games, while CBS will retain coverage of the regional finals, the Final Four and the championship game through 2015.
Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split by CBS and Turner; the Final Four and the championship game will alternate every year between CBS and TBS. Under the agreement, the NCAA and CBSSports.com will again provide live streaming video of games, though Turner secured rights for any player it develops.
"This is a landmark deal for Turner Broadcasting and we're extremely pleased to begin a long-term relationship with the NCAA and our partners at CBS and to have a commitment that extends well into the next decade," said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting.
The NCAA said the Division I Men's Basketball Committee unanimously passed the proposal and it will be reviewed by the Board of Directors next Thursday.
How critical is the deal to the NCAA? More than 95 percent of the governing body's total revenue comes from the broadcast rights to the men's basketball tournament.
And it was clearly important to New York-based CBS. Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, said the "new strategic partnership" was a core asset and a profitable one, though he hinted that the annual payments of $700 million over the last three years of the original deal were a load.
"We were prepared to do the last three years of the current deal, it was no secret that those three years would be very challenging," he said. "But this deal was based on the NCAA coming to us saying that we would like a new deal in place."
The National Association of Basketball Coaches has long advocated expansion, citing the fact that while the number of Division I teams has expanded greatly over the last quarter-century, the tourney has only added one team.
A 96-team field would have likely enveloped the 32-team NIT, the NCAA's other, independently run season-ending tournament.
The proposal is strictly for the men's tournament. Another NCAA committee is looking at whether to expand the women's tournament or keep it in the current format.